Bush Fails to Reassure

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, February 15, 2007 4:32 PM

President Bush did nothing at yesterday's news conference to reassure those who think his administration may once again be using faulty intelligence to build a case for war.

Bush spoke in the wake of conflicting, mostly anonymous administration claims of Iranian involvement in arming Iraqis with sophisticated bombs. He did back off from the claim that Teheran was directly responsible.

But what reporters yesterday were essentially asking him, over and over again, CNN's Ed Henry finally asked directly: "What assurances can you give the American people that the intelligence this time will be accurate?"

What was most striking about Bush's responses was not that he didn't provide any such assurances -- it was that he apparently still doesn't feel he needs to.

The president repeatedly swatted down skeptical questions with precisely the kinds of assertions that have lost nearly all credibility.

Just because Bush says "we know" or "I believe" isn't enough anymore.

In spite of claims made by anonymous American officials in Baghdad and then repeated by White House press secretary Tony Snow, Bush said yesterday he isn't sure of direct high-level Iranian involvement in the transfer of arms.

But he proudly wielded a rhetorical question to make it sound like it doesn't matter. Just in case anyone missed it, he said it twice:

"But here's my point: Either they knew or didn't know, and what matters is, is that they're there. What's worse, that the government knew or that the government didn't know?"

And again: "But my point is what's worse -- them ordering it and it happening, or them not ordering it and it happening? And so we will continue to protect our troops."

And yet that's a hugely important distinction. For instance, there are lots of ways those weapons could be ending up in Iraq short of a high-level decision by the Iranian government to send them. ( Spencer Ackerman lists several on TPMMuckraker.)

Asked for provable facts, Bush is once again resorting to the kind of hint-filled speculation that got us into Iraq.

Not to mention that for Bush to argue that the leaders of a government are culpable for whatever happens under their watch is quite antithetical to the position he himself has adopted when it comes to taking responsibility for the torture and abuse of prisoners, the murder of civilians, and other blunders and atrocities committed in the war on terror.

Among the other highlight from yesterday's press conference:

When asked if he believes Iraq is in at state of civil war, Bush suddenly pled ignorance: "It's hard for me, living in this beautiful White House, to give you an assessment, firsthand assessment," he said.

But since when has that ever stopped him from reaching judgments about Iraq? Never, that's when. I suspect that statement will come back to haunt him.

When asked how people who oppose his policies in Iraq can express that opposition without being accused of emboldening the enemy, Bush responded: "I think you can be against my decision and support the troops, absolutely. But the proof will be whether or not you provide them the money necessary to do the mission."

In other words, as liberal blogger Josh Marshall put it: "Bush: To be patriotic you don't have to agree with my policy, but you do have to support it."

Here's the transcript of the press conference. Here's the video.

A Call for a Closer Textual Analysis

Journalists -- and in particular daily newspaper reporters -- have an understandable tendency to try to summarize things, and to do so in a way that doesn't leave the reader confused.

But administration statements, particularly when military action may be in the offing, need to be parsed meticulously. Even if it gets messy and complicated.

Josh Marshall, who was really on a roll yesterday, writes: "President Bush is intentionally giving Americans the impression that we know something we don't. . . .

"After the Iran war, we'll probably be walked back and shown that President Bush never really said that the [Iranian] Qods force was giving these weapons to the people using them against US troops. He didn't fib. We just didn't listen closely enough. He was just saying that the Qods folks gave them to someone. But he wasn't saying who. So before all our soldiers die and before the president makes yet a million more screw ups for which we'll pay for decades into the future, let's look closely at what he's actually saying."

Bush's Fundamental Problem

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "The specter of the war in Iraq -- a war the Bush administration denied it was planning, supported by evidence that turned out to be false -- looms large over administration policy toward Iran. . . .

"'In the old days, if the U.S. government had come out and said, "We've got this, here's our assessment," reasonable people would have taken it at face value,' [one administration official] said of the Baghdad briefing. 'That's never going to happen again.' . . .

"In yesterday's White House news conference, Bush grappled with the issue head-on. 'What makes you so certain,' a reporter asked Bush, of the military's charge that 'the highest levels of Tehran's government' are responsible for shipments of lethal weapons to Iraq for use against U.S. troops?

"Bush contradicted the military's account, saying, 'We don't know . . . whether the head leaders of Iran ordered' it.

"'But here's my point,' he added. 'Either they knew or didn't know, and what matters is, is that [the weapons] they're there.'

"Yet, as questions that have peppered senior officials all week suggest, what matters in the post-Iraq invasion era is whether the administration can prove it."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "Bush has always supported a faith-based initiative, but his recitation of beliefs in the East Room yesterday -- he listed no fewer than 18 principles he holds to be true -- sounded less like a question-and-answer session than a reading of the Nicene Creed. The only thing the president did not believe in was answering the questions he was asked. . . .

"The president seemed petulant in his refusal to answer questions; he was, after all, the one who summoned reporters to the White House for the purpose of questioning him. Probably, it was the tone of the questions that set him off: While Bush freely voiced his beliefs, the reporters seemed disinclined to accept his statements of faith. . . .

"CNN's Ed Henry still didn't share Bush's confidence. 'What assurances can you give the American people that the intelligence this time will be accurate?' he asked.

"'Ed,' Bush vouched, 'we know they're there.'"

Wolf Blitzer talked to Henry on CNN afterwards: "All right, Ed Henry, you're at the White House right now. And he really didn't answer your specific question about the discrepancy between what he and General Peter Pace, the chairman of the joint chiefs, are saying now, that they don't know if the highest officials in the Iranian government actually authorized these shipments of explosives to Iraqi Shiites, even though Sunday morning in Baghdad, U.S. officials were making that specific charge.

"HENRY: That's right, Wolf.

"I mean, look, this all started with the administration itself, on Sunday, making these claims that the highest levels of the Iranian government were involved. That's why we've been pursuing these questions for the last couple of days.

"And it really appears that the administration is not on the same page, that they're all over the map on this.

"Now, I'm getting pushed back from very senior White House officials saying look, this is much ado about very little.

"But the fact of the matter is that the president today really seemed to be pulling back from what those officials said Sunday -- Wolf.

"BLITZER: Is -- is this, as some of the president's critics are suggesting -- a pretext or a possibility of a step leading toward actual military confrontation with Iran?

"HENRY: Look, the president insists absolutely not, that he has no intention of going to war with Iran. He said that again today. He's been saying that for weeks, as have a whole bunch of top officials.

"Bottom line is that all of this talk about intelligence, what do they have, when did they have it, it's obviously reminding a lot of people about the buildup to the war in Iraq. There are a lot of lingering questions of credibility from that and that's why the president is getting these questions now -- Wolf.

"BLITZER: Ed Henry doing his job at the White House for us, asking important questions of the president of the United States.

"Ed, thank you."

The Coverage

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush bluntly accused Iranian agents yesterday of providing sophisticated explosives to kill U.S. troops in Iraq but said he did not know whether they were acting on orders of the Islamic republic's leaders and denied using the allegations as a pretext to go to war with Tehran. . . .

"The president spent much of the hour-long televised session in the East Room addressing skepticism about his government's assertions regarding Iran and fears of a widening regional conflict."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Marc Santora write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush's remarks amounted to his most specific accusation to date that Iran was undermining security in Iraq. They appeared to be part of a concerted effort by the White House to present a clearer, more direct case that Iran was supplying the potent weapons -- and to push back against criticism that the intelligence used in reaching the conclusions was not credible. . . .

"Some experts said the question of Iran's responsibility remained important. 'There's a big difference between saying that there is a rogue element doing things and then asking the Iranian government to rein it in, as opposed to saying this is a calculated deliberate strategy of the Iranian government,' said Vali Nasr, a Middle East scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. 'That has very different implications in terms of how do you hold Iran culpable.'

"The administration's claims about Iran have been met with intense skepticism, from Democrats in Congress and from experts like David Kay, who led the search for illicit weapons in Iraq. Some critics have said the White House is using Iran as a scapegoat for its problems in Iraq, and some have suggested that the administration, which has been trying to pressure Iran into abandoning its nuclear program, is laying the foundation for another war."

Ron Hutcheson and Margaret Talev write for McClatchy Newspapers: "Bush's comments left some ambiguity about his intentions. Although he said he favors a peaceful resolution and isn't trying to provoke Iran, he didn't rule out military action.

"He also seemed to shrug off the lack of evidence tying top Iranian officials to the weapons shipments."

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "For weeks now, Iran has eclipsed Iraq as the subject of the biggest parlor game in Washington. Is the president heading to war or committed to peace? It turns out the answer is something in between. The practice of sending mixed messages -- about whether the government of Iran is involved or not, whether the proper response should be military or not, whether the intel on the country is good or not -- seems to be an intentional policy."

A key ingredient in this policy, they write, "was [Vice President] Cheney's trip to Saudi Arabia in late November."

Wolffe and Bailey conclude that "there's a fine line between keeping the pressure on Tehran and what sounds like fightin' words. The challenge for the administration is to calm the fears of war while still making Iran fearful of American military power. No wonder rational folks are confused."

Scooter Libby Watch

And on Wednesday, Scooter Libby's defense rested. Not that they should have been particularly tired. They didn't put up much of a fight.

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "The lawyers defending I. Lewis Libby Jr. against perjury charges rested their case on Wednesday, but not before suffering a series of defeats in rulings by the presiding judge.

"The judge, Reggie B. Walton, expressed in the strongest terms yet that he had been misled by the defense team about whether Mr. Libby would take the stand in his own defense.

"Judge Walton said he 'believed all along in the process that Mr. Libby was going to testify' and that his lawyers were now 'playing games with the process.'"

Amy Goldstein and Carol D. Leonnig write in The Washington Post: "Shortly before testimony ended in the five-week trial, the presiding judge blocked defense attorneys from presenting the testimony of their proposed final witnesses -- CIA employees who briefed Libby each day on crises and terrorist threats around the world. . . .

"Their testimony, which would have relied on classified information that the judge had approved for admission at the trial, was intended to reinforce the central argument of Libby's defense: that he did not deliberately lie to investigators about his role in the disclosure of Plame's identity to journalists but inaccurately remembered it because it was trivial in comparison with the weighty issues before him.

"U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton sided with prosecutors, who argued that it would be unfair to allow such testimony because Libby had decided not to testify and could not be cross-examined."

Valentine's Day Mystery

Lewis writes in the New York Times about the strange behavior of the jury yesterday: "Before the jurors departed on Wednesday afternoon, they filed into the courtroom, all but one wearing bright red T-shirts with a white valentine heart over their clothes, to the uncertain laughter of many in the courtroom.

"But as one juror, a retired North Carolina schoolteacher, rose to speak, Judge Walton became visibly anxious that the juror might say something inappropriate that could threaten the trial. Jurors are not supposed to speak and are supposed to make any concerns known through notes to the bench.

"The juror said they were wearing the shirts to express their fondness for the judge and the court staff on Valentine's Day. He then added, to the judge's growing discomfort, that they were unanimous in this sentiment, but they would all be independent in judging the evidence in the Libby case."

What's it all mean? My first reaction was that if the Libby lawyers are hoping for a mistrial -- which may be the best they can do -- then the schoolteacher's talk of unanimity must have been terrifying.

But one juror wasn't weariong the T-shirt. And all it takes is one balky juror for a mistrial.

John Dickerson writes for Slate: "I think it's good news for Scooter Libby. This has been a tedious case, with lots of little irritating details, and yet the jury is still upbeat. And uncynical."

Here's an artist's rendering of the scene.

The Big Picture

Greg Miller writes in the Los Angeles Times: "One of the signature moments in the case came this week, when veteran Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus was asked about the difficulty of getting top government officials to talk to him.

"'Well, they'll talk to me,' Pincus testified. 'They just won't give me information.'

"The 2-week-old Libby trial has provided an unprecedented look into the transactions between reporters and government officials. Jurors have heard detailed testimony on -- and sometimes audiotapes of -- conversations between reporters and sources that were supposed to have been conducted in secret. They have been given impromptu tutorials on the arcane rules of sourcing, learning the subtle differences between 'off the record' and 'deep background.'

"The testimony is supposed to help jurors reach a verdict on whether Libby lied to investigators about his role in leaking the name of a clandestine CIA officer to the media. But in many ways, the trial has shed more light on the ways of Washington, exposing the often messy means by which reporters gather information, and the sometimes ignoble motives of those who provide it."

An NYT Shout-out to Firedoglake

The extraordinary livebloggers at Firedoglake.com get some recognition today from Scott Shane, who writes in the New York Times: "The perjury trial of I. Lewis Libby Jr., former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, has drawn every major news organization in the country to the federal courthouse in Washington. But none has fielded a bigger team -- or was more openly crushed by the defense decision this week not to put Mr. Cheney and Mr. Libby on the stand -- than Firedoglake.com. . . .

"A collective of liberal bloggers, fueled by online donations and a fanatical devotion to the intricacies of the Libby case, Firedoglake has offered intensive trial coverage, using some six contributors in rotation. They include a former prosecutor, a current defense lawyer, a Ph.D. business consultant and a movie producer, all of whom lodge at a Washington apartment rented for the duration of the trial.

"All day long during the trial, one Firedoglake blogger is on duty to beam to the Web from the courthouse media room a rough, real-time transcript of the testimony. With no audio or video feed permitted, the Firedoglake 'live blog' has offered the fullest, fastest public report available. Many mainstream journalists use it to check on the trial."

The Libby trial bloggers as a whole, Shane writes, "are a throwback to a journalistic style of decades ago, when many reporters made no pretense of political neutrality. Compared with the sober, neutral drudges of the establishment press, the bloggers are class clowns and crusaders, satirists and scolds."

Not Gonna Talk About It

Bush absolutely refused to talk about anything related to the CIA leak yesterday, even though Washington Post reporter Peter Baker's questions were excellent -- and Bush could very easily have answered without in any way jeopardizing Libby's trial.

"Q Thank you, Mr. President. Sir, we've now learned through sworn testimony that at least three members of your administration, other than Scooter Libby, leaked Valerie Plame's identity to the media. None of these three is known to be under investigation. Without commenting on the Libby trial, then, can you tell us whether you authorized any of these three to do that, or were they authorized without your permission?

"THE PRESIDENT: Yes, thanks, Pete. I'm not going to talk about any of it.

"Q They're not under investigation, though?

"THE PRESIDENT: Peter, I'm not going to talk about any of it.

"Q How about pardons, sir? Many people are asking whether you might pardon --

"THE PRESIDENT: Not going to talk about it, Peter. (Laughter.) Would you like to think of another question?"

I'm not sure what's more inappropriate -- Bush's refusal to answer a reasonable question or the press corps literally laughing it off.

But I'm awfully curious how Bush is going to justify his refusal to discuss the issue once the Libby trial is over.

How About Those Benchmarks?

Today was the day that White House officials promised reporters that the Iraqis would have three new brigades stationed in Baghdad.

It was on January 10 that one of two senior administration officials made this startlingly verifiable assertion:

"SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, here's -- but you're going to have to -- you're going to have some opportunities to judge very quickly. The Iraqis are going to have three brigades within Baghdad within a little more than a month. They have committed to trying to get one brigade in, I think, by the first of February, and two more by the 15th. . . .

"So people are going to be able to see pretty quickly that the Iraqis are or are not stepping up. And that provides the ability to judge."

So what's the verdict? Are they there? Reports are few and inconsistent.

For more, see my blog post on the Nieman Wachdog Blog.

Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Damien Cave provide more anecdotal information in today's New York Times that the Iraqis have in fact not come through:

"Thousands of American troops in armored Stryker vehicles swarmed three mostly Shiite neighborhoods of northeastern Baghdad on Wednesday, encountering little resistance during what commanders described as the first major sweep of the new security plan for the capital.....

"But even though an Iraqi announced the new phase of the security plan, it was clearly an American-led operation: only 200 Iraqi police officers and soldiers were involved, commanders said, working alongside about 2,500 Americans."

And Stephen Farrell writes for the Times of London today that "US commanders" are saying "that three brigades of Iraqi reinforcements will not be in place for another 30 days."

North Korea Watch

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "The White House yesterday found itself fending off a conservative revolt over the North Korea nuclear deal, even scrambling to mollify one of its own top officials who expressed sharp disagreement with a provision that could spring Pyongyang from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, U.S. officials said yesterday.

"Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser, fired off e-mails expressing bewilderment over the agreement and demanding to know why North Korea would not have to first prove it had stopped sponsoring terrorism before being rewarded with removal from the list, according to officials who reviewed the messages."

Kim Murphy writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Iran is quietly accelerating efforts to negotiate a deal on its nuclear program, using this week's agreement to freeze North Korea's program as a model.

"In the North Korea pact, the Bush administration signed a deal that provides significant incentives to Pyongyang even before the country completely steps back from its nuclear weapons program. The administration's willingness to agree to that probably will harden Iran's demands that it too should get tangible benefits as part of any agreement, analysts in Iran say."

Cheney's Reach

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write for Newsweek: "A Pentagon office headed by a former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney has rejected the findings of a new report that sharply criticized the handling of pre-war intelligence on Iraq.

"In a blistering internal memo obtained by Newsweek, Eric Edelman, under secretary of defense for policy, characterized portions of the inspector-general's report as 'egregious.' Edelman -- the Pentagon's No. 3 official -- also staunchly defended the actions of his predecessor, Douglas Feith, who has been criticized for his pre-war efforts to promote the idea that Saddam Hussein's regime had a relationship with Al Qaeda.

"The protests of Edelman -- and his success in getting acting Pentagon Inspector-General Thomas Gimble to drop recommended policy changes from his report -- shows how current and former Cheney aides still wield their clout throughout the government."

Still Fixing Iraqi Intel?

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have questioned whether the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq gave political advantage to the Bush administration by making 'rapid withdrawal' of U.S. troops the only alternative military option the NIE explored.

"The estimate judged that rapid withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq would 'almost certainly' increase sectarian violence, intensify Sunni resistance, possibly cause the Iraqi Security Forces to dissolve and allow al-Qaeda to seek a sanctuary to plan attacks inside and outside the country. . . .

"Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), a panel member, wrote Negroponte on Feb. 8: 'Setting up a false choice between indefinite military involvement and a rapid, unplanned withdrawal distorts the current debate in Congress and in the country about how best to defend our national security interests in Iraq.' He added that such an approach 'does, however, closely align with the administration's efforts to justify an unsustainable military involvement as the only option.'"

House Resolution

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "With Republicans speaking out against President Bush's war policy on the House floor yesterday, GOP leaders and the White House conceded defeat on a resolution opposing sending additional U.S. troops to Iraq and began looking toward the coming battle over the war's funding."

Bubble Watch

Peter Spiegel writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush said Wednesday that he did not believe morale of troops in Iraq had declined because of repeated deployments to the war zone, saying his commanders on the ground would have informed him if any problems existed."

Trust These Guys?

From the National Security Archive, this revelation: "The U.S. Central Command's war plan for invading Iraq postulated in August 2002 that the U.S. would have only 5,000 troops left in Iraq as of December 2006, according to the Command's PowerPoint briefing slides, which were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and are posted on the Web today by the National Security Archive.

"The PowerPoint slides, prepared by CentCom planners for Gen. Tommy Franks under code name POLO STEP, for briefings during 2002 for President Bush, the NSC, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, the JCS, and Franks' commanders, refer to the 'Phase IV' post-hostilities period as 'UNKNOWN' and 'months' in duration, but assume that U.S. forces would be almost completely 're-deployed' out of Iraq within 45 months of the invasion (i.e. December 2006)."

The 'Ic' Goes Missing Again

Accidentally or on purpose?

After self-deprecatingly apologizing to Democrats for failing to refer to their party by its actual name, Bush did it again yesterday -- three times. Even as he was talking about working with them!

On balancing the budget: "And I'd like to work with the Democrat leadership, as well as, obviously, my Republican folks, to get it done."

On health care: "I got a letter the other day from a group of Republican and Democrat senators."

On his education legislation: "[I] will reach out to Democrat members, as well as Republican members, to get this bill reauthorized."

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